Wednesday 31 July 2002

Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)

Edition: Penguin, 1942
Review number: 1110

Orlando is famous as the novel into which Woolf poured her passion for Vita Sackville-West; the character of Orlando is meant to represent both her and her aristocratic family background (her rootedness in English history was one of the things which fascinated Woolf). And yet, even though she is a vitally important part of the novel, it would be quite possible to read it and admire it without being aware of this fact. Orlando is not the only character in the novel inspired by a real person; his early lover Sasha is a portrait of Vita's own Violet Trefusis.

Orlando seems at first to be a (rather whimsical) historical novel about a poetically minded Elizabethan nobleman. However, Orlando remains a young man through the early Stuarts, before he becomes Charles II's ambassador to the Turkish court in Constantinople. This is when things become really strange, when Orlando escapes a massacre in a revolt because he is in a deep sleep and is thought to be dead, and wakes up a woman. She lives through the next two and a half centuries (up until the day in 1928 when Woolf says she is writing) and only in this form is able to find love, with the similarly sexually ambiguous Shelmerdine.

The intimations of homosexuality are actually quite discreet, particularly by modern standards. They have been rather seized upon, making Woolf something of an icon for lesbian pride, and yet they remain unusual for their tenderness.

At least as important to Woolf is the issue of feminism. When Orlando becomes a woman, court cases are brought against her to deprive her of her property on two grounds: she is dead, so that she cannot own property; and she is a woman, which Woolf says "amounts to much the same thing". (This mirrors events in Vita's life, for as a woman she could not inherit her ancestral home when her father died.) Even by writing a novel purporting to be in part a biography of a woman, Woolf was making a point: the Dictionary of National Biography, edited by her own father, was overwhelmingly masculine. Then there is the poetry; in an indirect reference to Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own (published a year later), Orlando writes bad poems as a man (to the derision of Ned Greene, who also appears in the essay). With less opportunity to write after the change of sex, most of the early work is abandoned and destroyed, but what Orlando then writes is of far higher quality.

In Orlando, the reader is constantly aware of a the poetic quality in the language Woolf uses, something she uses to express the slow flow of time in the life of one who seems to be immortal. Its tone is also partly due to the novel being a pioneering example of what is now called magic realism, a method of writing far more familiar than it could have been to the original readers. Among the diverse later writers that the novel brings to my mind are Peake, Rushdie, Jill Paton Walsh and the Moorcock of Mother London. Orlando is the most obviously non-realist Woolf novel of those I have read, and yet it is also the one which is likely to be most accessible to the modern reader, largely because its influence has trickled into much of modern mainstream literature and also into the fantasy genre.

Saturday 27 July 2002

Poul Anderson: Tau Zero (1970)

Edition: Gollancz, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1109

Tau Zero is about a space ship carrying fifty people to a nearby star; massive acceleration to close to the speed of light and relativistic time distortion mean that the journey will take decades rather than centuries, at least as far as the crew and passengers are concerned. On this voyage, there are even veterans of previous trips to other stars.

What makes this particular jouney of interest is a disaster which occurs about half way through. The plan was to accelerate for half the trip, and decelerate for the rest; but at just about the mid way mark, an encounter with a comparatively dense region of gas damages the ship, making deceleration impossible until repairs can be carried out. Tau Zero is about how the crew of the Leonora Christina cope with the disaster - and in fact it is a science fiction equivalent of the disaster movie.

The physical measurement called tau by Anderson is incredibly important in the theory of relativity. (It was not given a name like this in the lectures I had on the subject as a student; the letter tau was used to indicate a time parameter.) It is a measure of the difference between an object's velocity and the speed of light, and is 1 at rest and approaches 0 at the speed of light. Its vital importance in this particular novel is shown not just by the title but because Anderson makes the extremely unusual step of putting the mathematical formula defining tau in the text. It describes the distortion of various measurements at high: length, time, mass.

In Tau Zero, Anderson has managed to combine hard science fiction with a study of character - not something for which the subgenre is known. It is also unusual because most of the science described in the novel is well-understood, unlike the speculations of writers like Niven and Forward. It is hard science fiction at its very best, presenting the science in an entertaining way as part of a real story. It is not surprising that Tau Zero has become one of the most famous of all novels in the genre.

Wednesday 24 July 2002

Philip K. Dick: Counter-Clock World (1967)

Edition: Grafton, 1990
Review number: 1108

In general, Dick's novels contain a dazzling multiplicity of ideas; but Counter-Clock World is dominated by just one and careful limits are placed on how fully it is explored. It is in many ways (dictated by its theme) similar to Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake. There, people relive a decade of their lives, fully conscious that they have already experienced what they are going through; here, time has suddenly reversed.

Dick doesn't go to the extent of reversing everything, for a similar reason that Vonnegut's characters' memories are not erased - if everything went backwards, there couldn't be a story distinguishable from a strangely told forwards one. (At the very least, the characters need to be aware of what is going on.) He describes several bodily processes - or, rather, more effectively, he mentions them and leaves the details to the reader's imagination - including shaving, conception and the unpleasant, private affair that is eating. Two of these reversed processes are used as the basis for the plot. Since all that has been created now must be destroyed, the library, which searches out books for this purpose, has become a powerful institution (controlling what knowledge is still available); there can be few novels which make the profession of librarian so sinister. The mainspring of the plot is the resurrection of the dead; undertakers have been replaced by vivariums, companies that seek out those who have recently been revived and want to get out of their coffins. (Dick doesn't go into what happens to those who were cremated.) A small vivarium discovers the lost tomb of Timothy Peak, a religious leader who created a popular cult based around communal drug taking. He is about due for re-animation, and the politics surrounding him make this important and dangerous; those who have control of the cult since his death are not likely to give up their power easily, and the Library doesn't want him to return at all because of the disruption his anti-racist stand caused when he was alive.

The way that Counter-Clock World is written makes me think it was inspired by the striking image of the revived dead trying to get the attention of the living so they can be released from their coffins. The treatment of the time reversal is full of inconsistencies (such as the production of newspapers with current news in a world where all existing literature is being destroyed rather than published). It is an extremely ambitious idea and remains, I think, unique in science fiction; time's arrow is so fundamental in human thought that to conceive of it being any other way is incredibly difficult if properly carried through. It is not, in the end, one of Dick's most successful novels, but it is certainly a fascinating read.

Friday 19 July 2002

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)

Edition: Headline, 2001
Review number: 1107

The relationship between the existence of gods and people's belief in them has interested several fantasy writers (Zelazny, Cabell and Pratchett among them), and the answers they have come up with are generally similar (when people stop believing, the gods in question dwindle and die). Gaiman has used the same idea to inspire a fantasy on a large scale, one which is really about life in modern America. For behind the scenes America is full of gods - all those brought over by worshippers from overseas: from Ireland, Scandinavia, Egypt and West Africa (and of course the Amerindian gods as well). But now that their worshippers have almost entirely abandoned them, for the new gods of consumer products, TV and technology. The stage is set for one last confrontation between the bloody and visceral gods of the past and the soulless deities of the future.

The central character in American Gods is a man named Shadow. In prison after a bar fight, he is allowed out early when his wife is killed in a car accident. He travels unhappily back to his home town, and on the journey is offered a job by a strange man named Wednesday. He is soon introduced to the strange dark world behind the facade of America. There are inescapable parallels between the world revealed to Shadow and that experienced by Richard Mayhew in Gaiman's earlier fantasy Neverwhere - the same idea that the supernatural is a dark world all around us that we normally ignore - but the two are very different characters.

In the end, American Gods is only partially successful. It comes close to greatness in places, but Gaiman seems to be unable to decide exactly what he wants to say about American culture; his own feelings are presumably ambivalent. This weakens several parts of the novel, even though it could have been made a strength. Echoes of Americana by other writers give a strong sense of place, even if they make much of the novel seem like a homage to Twin Peaks. Gaiman makes the reader feel even though he is a very good writer, he has never actually achieved his potential; he always seems to pull his punches.

On the cover of the Headline edition of American Gods is the rather gimmicky offer "As good as Stephen King or your money back". That marks out the comparison that the publishers want readers to make - so is it that good? I last read King about twenty years ago, in my early teens (probably the best age to read his novels). The fact that I still feel that I remember those I read is testimony to their effectiveness, but I never felt any great urge to read more. What King excels at is surface; his novels are as a result chilling and exciting. Gaiman, to me, has deeper ideas but these are not put over so forcefully - his language is more poetic. I have never felt that King could have gone on to create a classic (particularly since much of his writing seems to be merely an updating of classic horror ideas), but Gaiman clearly could do so.

Tuesday 16 July 2002

William Kennedy: Ironweed (1983)

Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 1106

Francis Phelan left Albany in 1916 after he accidentally dropped and killed his baby son while drunk; after twenty two years living as a bum he returns, trying to make his peace with his memories. This simple idea is the basis for Kennedy's short but deep novel about coming to terms with the past; everyone has to live with the mistakes they have made (even if "what if..." is one of humanity's favourite games), and though Francis may have more serious issues to deal with and may have run away from them more literally than most, his experience is one with which everyone can identify.

There are two main sides to Ironweed. On the one hand, there is the mundane world of the alcoholic down and out in thirties America (even if Francis is currently "dry"). The aimlessness of this subculture combines with the Irishness of the characters to create an impression reminiscent of Waiting For Godot. The wastefullness of the lifestyle is also a strong part of the background, both in terms of the talents of those who become alcoholics (Francis was at one point a major league baseball player, and his companion's studies to become a concert pianist were only cut short by her father's suicide) and in the ever present threat of a squalid death.

The other side to the novel is, I suppose, a kind of magic realist touch. As Francis travels round Albany, he meets the ghosts of those whose death he has been involved with, including not just his son but strikebreakers killed in a riot when he was a striking tram driver. This device introduces pathos, through Francis' conversations with these ghosts, as well as providing the background to his life in Albany prior to going on the road. The ghosts are real to Francis, and so are recorded as though really present even though no one else is able to perceive them; the reader can decide for themselves whether they are supposed to be actual manifestations or constructs of Francis' subconscious.

A more minor facet of the novel which is of some interest is the title. As is indicated at the very beginning, tall ironweed is an American wild flower related to the sunflower, which gets its common name because it has a tough stem. It seems at the outset that this is rather inapplicable to the central character of Francis Phelan - running away to become an alcoholic tramp after killing his child is not the action of as strong a character as this implies, particularly as he did much the same after the strike a few years earlier. As you go on, however, you begin to see that this is a hasty judgement (and, after all, he ran because of something pretty serious in both cases). For a start, Francis is clearly extremely strong physically; no one who wasn't could survive over two decades of alcoholism. Then, too, it takes strength to go back, particularly as the barriers against doing so are likely to seem higher as time passes rather than lower (the reaction of Francis' daughter when she sees him is exactly the sort of thing that he will have been brooding about for twenty years).

Marred in places by a certain sentimentality, Ironweed is nonetheless a fascinating portrait of an individual facing up to the actions of his past.

Wednesday 10 July 2002

Brian Stableford: The Cassandra Complex (2001)

Edition: Tor, 2001
Review number: 1105

Following his well received trilogy about the search for a way to bring immortality to the human race, Stableford has now written a prequel. The early advances in this endeavour in his future history came from research to counter the bio-engineered diseases released in the Plague Wars which end some decades before Inherit the Earth, the first of the trilogy. The Cassandra Complex is set at around the beginning of these wars, as the nations of the West watch the progress of "hyperflu" across the world towards them.

The Cassandra Complex has a similar form to the first two novels, also concerning the investigation into a crime among those involved with longevity technology. Lisa Frieman is both a police officer (in forensics) and a biological researcher with connections to the distinguished Morgan Miller (bizarrely misnamed on the jacket synopsis as Jordan Miller). The story starts when she is woken by the sound of intruders in her home, part of a concerted set of attacks which include the kidnapping of Miller and the destruction of a huge experiment. Mouseworld consists of hundreds of thousands of mice in a maze of connected cages intended to see if their strategies for survival might suggest ways for human beings to cope with the overpopulation crisis (which makes their destruction seem a strangely motiveless crime as the approaching war seems certain to solve this problem in a much more drastic way).

Lisa Freeman is intensely involved in the investigation, due to her combined roles of policewoman, biology expert and Miller's closest friend (and former lover) as well as being a peripheral victim. She is not entirely believable, but it is nice to see a central character who is rather more elderly than usual in science fiction.
Nanotechnology and biological engineering are hot topics in science fiction at the moment, and most of the stories they have inspired are set far enough in the future that current controversies about genetic manipulation can be ignored. (The trilogy itself is one example of this.) It allows a writer to explore ideas about what might be done with this sort of technology in a way that the moral issues make impossible in a more contemporary setting. Here, though, Stableford is writing about the near future, the main part of The Cassandra Complex being set in around 2040 with flashbacks to as early as 1999. Thus, Stableford has different concerns here; The Cassandra Complex is not about what could be done with the genetic techniques of the future but rather the dramatic potential of today's concerns about overpopulation, animal experimentation, cloning, biological warfare and the potential for accidental or deliberate release of harmful material. Except on the most obvious of these issues, Stableford seems to want to sit on the fence, not offending anyone (there are, of course, few who would argue that the development of biological weapons is a good thing; the most positive reasons anyone can come up with is to claim it is necessary in the world in which we live). The controversies do give the story a currency which is lacking from the more abstract speculations, though I would expect characters actually involved in biological research to have stronger opinions about the issues than Stableford actually gives them. To make them discuss the issues would, however, add more explanation and argument to a novel already rather overburdened with them.

Before the industrial revolution, most of the potential disasters faced by human societies were biological and ecological (plagues and famines). Then technological disasters seemed uppermost in the mind of the public (nuclear war); but now we have a combination of the two. The constant prediction of disaster is what gives the novel its title, the Cassandra complex being what is suffered by those who predict disaster but are ignored, a prime example being those concerned with the problems of overpopulation.

It is the characterisation which means that The Cassandra Complex doesn't quite live up to the standards set by the other three novels; it contains interesting ideas, and a good (and quite difficult) puzzle. It is certainly enough to make me keen to read Stableford's next novel.

Saturday 6 July 2002

Jonathan Carroll: The Marriage of Sticks (1999)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 1104

The basic scenario of The Marriage of Sticks is typical, I believe, of Carroll's novels (I've only read one other, The Land of Laughs, but this is what I gather). It starts off naturalistically, but gradually strange things begin to happen. In this case, central character Miranda Romanac attends a high school reunion which is spoilt when she hears that the childhood sweetheart James Stillman she expected to see again died some years ago. Returning to her life as a bookdealer in New York, she makes the acquaintance of a fascinating elderly woman, who knew everyone intimately (people like Hemingway and the famous artists of the twenties). Leaving this woman's apartment, she sees James across the street, which turns out only to be the first in a series of bizarre encounters and events.

Both in this novel and The Land of Laughs, the strange events which happen are connected to ideas about fate. Carroll's first novel is about how it might feel to be part of a book, and know that the events in your life are written as fiction by another. Here, fate is fixed for most people, but Miranda is able to change things. This is described mainly through the effects it has on the lives of the others with whom she interacts - James Stillman doesn't have a life-changing experience when she refuses to go on a teenage spree that would have led to imprisonment; a later lover leaves his wife for her when they were meant to stay together.

The title comes from an idea suggested to Miranda by this lover. When some significant event occurs, find a stick and write the date on it (presumably these characters always carry a penknife and a pen). Keep the sticks to stimulate memories, but when you are old and have no more need of them, put them together and burn them, a fire Carroll calls the marriage of sticks. This is presumably something that will bring a kind of closure, an idea which becomes important in the second part of the novel. (How can a person find closure at the end of their life if it has been deflected from its intended course?)

The Marriage of Sticks is an intense novel, and I found reading it an intense experience. A lot of it is about death and mourning, and it brought back memories of that kind from my own life. Not then for the recently bereaved, but recommended for anyone else.

Wednesday 3 July 2002

Ric Alexander: Cyber-Killers (1997)

Edition: Orion, 1998
Review number: 1103

In terms of plot, most science fiction - at least when of novel length - is some form of thriller or romance. In recent years, there has been something of a vogue for the futuristic whodunit, but there is a much longer history of cross-genre science/crime fiction including short stories as well as Isaac Asimov's pioneering Elijah Baley novels. This is particularly the case with plots involving computers and murder - computers investigating, preventing or committing crime, or being the objects of murderous impulses themselves.

The short story is a major part of science fiction history, which (because of its pulp associations) was the major form of the genre for about forty years, particularly in the U.S.A. So it might well seem that a short story collection would be an ideal way to showcase some of the ideas that science fiction writers have had about computer related crime. However, there is a serious problem for an editor seeking to select stories around the theme: computers have come to play a more important and more realistic role in science fiction as or after the short story went into a steep decline (as a result of changes in principally American reading habits). Budgets for this kind of book are unlikely to pay for wholesale commissioning of new, up to date, stories, and anyway many of today's authors are less keen to write short stories, demanding as they are in altogether different ways to novels.

Alexander as a result has chosen a selection of mainly older stories by well-known authors. (The reader gets a particularly strong impression that they are old because three of the most recent come right at the end of the collection.) There is actually one which uses punched card technology; as the story, Sam Hall by Poul Anderson, was written as long ago as 1953, this is understandable but jogs the modern reader somewhat. (As a story, it is one of the best in the collection.) It is interesting to read some of the visions of the uses of computers which go back fifty years, particularly when they bring up concerns that are now mainstream. (Sam Hall, for example, is about the use of computers by governments to monitor and control the lives of citizens.) For readers who want to see some of the more current ideas about the future of computing crime (which is after all what the cover synopsis of the anthology claims it is about), this is a bit of a disappointment.

This old fashioned feel is not really the fault of the editor (except for the way that the ordering of the stories contributes to it), and he has certainly chosen some really good stories. (The best, and longest, is Zelazny's Home is the Hangman.) There are two faults which are presumably to be laid at Alexander's door, however. The less serious of these is that the stories do not entirely fit within the parameters the collection sets for itself: not all of them can be said to involve killing, and not all involve computers. He has arranged the stories into three sections, and it is also not clear in some cases why particular stories are placed where they are.

A more serious problem, one which has aspects that might really annoy a reader, is that Alexander's introductions to each story are poor. They take a standard form which, apart from a certain irritating typographical cuteness, describes the career of the writer and summarises the story. The potted biographies are impersonal and nothing special - they read like paragraphs taken straight from a reference book like The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - but the summaries tend to give away important details that I for one would far sooner garner by reading the actual story. (Science fiction short stories often depend on a small detail for their effect, and the attention of the reader is frequently drawn to this in the introductions.) There is no pleasure in discovering something or working it out when you have just been told it, nor do you tend to find unsettling something you have been informed will make you feel this way. The story really ruined by this is Alfred Bester's Fondly Fahrenheit.

Cyber-Killers is a collection of good stories which nevertheless does not add up to delivering what is promised, and which are best read without the editorials.